Football is an all-American pastime like no other, which has brought joy to generations of both players and spectators. But football is a risky sport as well, and we in the personal injury law field know that all too well.
In recent years, brain injuries caused by football have been the catalyst for a number of personal injury lawsuits. The most notable of these involved a 2015 settlement by the NFL for over $1 billion, to be distributed to former professional football players who suffer from CTE.
CTE, more properly known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, is a degenerative brain disease caused by severe, repeated blows to the head. CTE sufferers gradually lose brain function, and over time begin to exhibit symptoms such as aggression, impulsive behavior, and loss of memory, often resulting in early onset dementia.
The symptoms of CTE come on very slowly, and the disease can take decades to unfold. Because of this, many football players who suffered from CTE in past decades never realized what was happening to them. They suffered in silence, and their loss of brain function was chalked up to the normal process of aging.
We may never know how many football players over the years have suffered from CTE. Although the risk of repeated concussions had been known within the medical literature for decades, the full effects of CTE only came to be common knowledge in the 1990s. But when this research was discovered, the NFL initially did everything it could to cover it up, and did little to protect its players.
In recent years, the NFL has become more concerned with its players’ brain safety. But it comes too late for many football players, who have suffered severe and irreversible head damage that the NFL could have easily prevented. That is the basis for the most recent billion dollar lawsuit.
What Does the New Study Say?
The latest study on CTE was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in July. It suggests that CTE among football players is even more common than was previously thought.
The study, entitled “Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football,” looked at the brains of 202 deceased football players that had been donated to science. This tally included 111 brains of former NFL players.
The results, to say the least, were disturbing. Of the 202 brains, 177 of them, or 87%, exhibited signs of CTE. But this included all types of football players, including those who played at the high school and college levels. Of the 111 former NFL players, all but one of them showed signs of CTE.
Does this mean that all professional football players will suffer CTE? Not necessarily. The study, as acknowledged by its authors, had several limitations. One of these was “ascertainment bias associated with participation in this brain donation program.” In other words, players who had concerns, or whose families had concerns, about their brain function might have been more likely to donate their brains to the study than those who did not.
In addition, there was no control group, and professional football players were overrepresented in the study. And finally, many of the players represented in the study played football decades ago, when safety standards were much less strict than they are today, meaning that the study might not be fully representative of the risks faced by modern players.
But even with these limitations, the message of the study, which adds to an overwhelming body of research supporting a link between football and CTE, could not be clearer. CTE is a major problem among professional football players. And the higher the level at which you play football, the more intense the injury appears to be. (In the study, former high school football players mostly had mild CTE, while college and professional level players had more severe cases.)
So even if the number turns out to be less than the 99% suggested by the study, even if it’s 80% or 70% or even 50%, the link between football and severe and long-lasting brain injury cannot be denied.
What Are the Legal Ramifications of This Study?
Science and law are more closely tied together than one might think. In many instances, a scientific study means the difference between a successful personal injury case and a groundless one. This is particularly true in cases involving toxic substances, defective consumer products, or other types of injuries for which the link between the defendant and the injury needs to be clearly established.
Football-related injuries fall into this category. It was recent advances in scientific evidence that allowed victims of CTE to get the justice that they deserved, and it was the lack of this evidence earlier in the history of the game which prevented earlier victims of CTE from getting this justice. But it is not enough to prove an injury in law. To win a lawsuit, you must also prove that another party caused this injury, and that you have justifiable grounds to sue for damages.
Will this new study prompt a new round of litigation against the NFL? It’s too early to say. But it will almost certainly prompt further review of safety practices on behalf of the NFL, because if they are smart they will want to do anything they can to protect themselves against more lawsuits.
Already, there have been many such changes. While previous generations of football players were often encouraged to shake off concussions and get back into the game, the NFL now recognizes concussions for the serious health hazard that they are, and allows players to rest after suffering one. It is likely that rules will continue to change further into the future, and this will have a significant impact on the way the game is played.
Finally, this study may have a ripple effect, not just in the world of civil litigation, but also in the realm of criminal law as well. Recall that one of the symptoms of CTE is aggression and poor impulse control. This could cast a new light on any violent crimes committed by former football players.
There has even been some speculation that O.J. Simpson, a former NFL running back who has had a series of violent run-ins with the law, including a criminal conviction for robbery and kidnapping, and a civil conviction for the wrongful death of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994, may suffer from CTE. Dr. Bennett Omalu, who has extensive experience with CTE in former football players, even said that he would “bet (his) medical license” on O.J. being a sufferer.
Should these new findings change our understanding of O.J.’s dark history, and his 1995 “trial of the century” (which occurred, coincidentally, only one year after the NFL first formally recognized the danger of repeated concussions)? Will future professional football players accused of violent crimes use the “CTE defense” to try and excuse their actions? No one can say, just yet, but these are fascinating legal questions.
What Should I Do If I Have CTE?
Currently, there is no cure for CTE, although this may change in the future. The disease cannot even be diagnosed properly until after death, which is why the above study relied on the brains of deceased former football players.
However, many of the symptoms of CTE are treatable, which is why it is so important to raise awareness of the diseases in former football players. Depression, for instance, can be treated with medication. (As studies have shown that CTE sufferers, even those with mild cases, are more likely to commit suicide, diagnosing mood disorders is especially important.) With the right steps, quality of life can be greatly improved for those with CTE.
Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure, and that is why dealing with CTE begins on the football field. Take any head injuries very seriously, and if you suffer repeated concussions, the best thing for you to do may be to abandon the game entirely. One concussion typically doesn’t do much lasting damage, but once you get two concussions, or three or four or five, they start to accumulate. Consider it a “one free concussion” rule, if you will.
If I Have Been Injured While Playing Football, Can I Sue?
In general, it is not easy to sue for injuries that you suffer in the course of playing sports. The law assumes that, when you consent to play a sport, you accept a certain inherent risk of injury.
This is not to say, however, that you accept an unlimited risk of injury. Under certain circumstances, lawsuits can still be legitimately filed. After all, if this were not the case, the abovementioned NFL settlement might never have occurred.
If another player commits an egregious violation of the rules, for instance, and this leads to an injury, then you may have grounds to sue. And if you suffer an injury because of defective sports equipment (such as a concussion because of a poorly designed football helmet), or other types of poor playing conditions that were negligently caused by others, then this could also be grounds for a case.
In any case, if you are considering a personal injury lawsuit concerning some sort of injury or harm that you suffered during a game of football, your best bet is to speak to a personal injury attorney with experience in this field.